Beacon Street Diary blog

Spider-Man meets Cotton Mather – Conflict Ensues

If Cotton Mather has a reputation — fairly or unfairly — in the world of popular culture, it is as a moralistic bore. Fans of The Simpsons may recall the narcoleptic effect that the mere mention of the name Cotton Mather has on Apu Nahasapeemapetilon in the episode "Much Apu about Nothing". There is, however, one bizarre artifact of pop-culture, which bucks that trend. In the Marvel universe, Cotton Mather is portrayed as a dynamic, violent, and spiteful bad guy, who spars with Spider-Man. Peculiar as this characterization of Cotton Mather may be, it does begin to make sense, when viewed through the lens of the cultural legacy of the Puritans and the Salem Witch Trials.

Cotton Mather appears as a character in Marvel Team-Up, Series 1, issues 41-45, published between January and May 1976. He is a "Witch-Hunter", who myopically hunts for witches across all time-periods, from the 1690s to the 1970s. The story that unfolds in these four comics begins with Cotton Mather telepathically luring the Scarlet Witch — a mutant, who uses her witch-like powers for good — to a distant castle, with a time machine, so that he may time-travel with her back to Salem, Massachusetts in 1692 and persecute her as a witch during the Salem Witch Trials. Spider-Man receives a mysterious distress signal from the Scarlet Witch and he ends up in the fray, fighting against Cotton Mather, alongside the Vision (another hero) and Dr. Doom (a villain, who becomes an ally of Spider-Man for this adventure). Once they're all in Salem, 1692, amidst the witch-hunting hysteria, the Dark-Rider emerges. He's an evil being, who has existed since pre-historic times, and gains his strength by draining the power of witches. Cotton acts in cahoots with this monstrous creature, believing him to be "the Angel of Light... come to battle the darkness of man." It seems that the Dark-Rider gave Cotton Mather his telepathic super-powers, along with his ability to launch purifying fire at his enemies. Did you follow that? This story is, if nothing else, the most creative retelling of the Salem Witch Trials that likely exists.


Cotton "Witch-Hunter" Mather smites Spidey and Scarlet Witch

The Cotton Mather of these comic books, not surprisingly, bears no resemblance to the historic figure of Cotton Mather. Aside from looking far less sinister than his comic books doppelganger, the actual Cotton Mather was not actively involved in the Salem Witch trials and never, as far as the historical records show, time-traveled to the 1970s. Nevertheless, Cotton Mather will forever be linked to the Witch Trials, because his chose to equivocate, rather than steadfastly condemn the trials and seek to put a stop to them. His subsequent response to the trials and to witchcraft in general, expressed in The wonders of the invisible world. Being an account of the tryals of several witches lately executed in New England... has been viewed negatively since his day and his reputation has never fully recovered in the popular imagination.

     
Cotton "Witch-Hunter" Mather   the real Cotton Mather

Cotton Mather's tangential connection with the events in Salem most likely accounts for why he was chosen to appear in these comic books. These stories required an evil Puritan, and he was the historical figure, whom the writers chose.

Popular culture has had a long and seemingly insatiable desire to tell and retell the story of the Salem Witch Trials, in innumerable variations, but rarely with much concern for historical accuracy. (This is hardly the only comic book, for example, that deals with this subject.) In pop-culture, however, historical accuracy doesn't matter, because the Salem Witch Trials function as an allegory, in which society’s fears of injustice, mob hysteria, morally corrupt authority figures, and social unrest, find expression. These stories are less about what actually happened in Salem and more about the climate of the society in which they are produced.

Although saying "Spoiler Alert" is de rigueur on the Internet, it shouldn't spoil anyone's experience with these comics to know that Spider-Man defeats Cotton Mather and saves the Scarlet Witch. Spider-Man, that paragon of justice and morality, even against the chaotic backdrop of the Salem Witch Trials, heroically upholds righteousness, while Cotton Mather loses his mind and is laughed at by history. In the end, however, even Spidey couldn't stop all of the horrors of the Salem Witch Trials, so we'll likely see many more retellings of this story. Let's just hope that Cotton Mather is appropriately left out of the next one.


Spider-Man taunts Mather

-Steve

 


If you're interested in learning more about Cotton Mather and the world he really lived in, visit our Program & Workshop Schedule for details about our upcoming event, Mather Redux.

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